The Toyota Etios may be cheap to buy and run, but it will never stir the soul. I know how contradictory this opinion is. There are still scores of buyers who want an Etios, as is proved by the monthly sales figures.
It is the last product one would consider as a foundation on which to base the revival of a genre that seems to have been forgotten: the affordable and fun-to-drive compact.
The man behind this project is former racing engineer Martin Pretorius.
“I wanted to rekindle the spirit of performance hatchbacks from yesteryear,” he said.
I quip: could you not have started from a slightly more exciting base?
He counters: “The Etios is an ideal foundation for many reasons, apart from the obvious cost feasibility.
“The inherent integrity of the vehicle is worth noting — this is a car with a four-star EuroNCAP [European new car assessment programme] rating, it has a rigid body structure, fairly competent basic suspension and it is light.
“It also lends itself to a resurrection of the iconic RSi moniker. Much of the development was guided by a mandate to recapture the character of the original 1985 Conquest RSi.”
The prototype revealed to us Zwartkops was close to completion after a year in development.
It looks spunky, but as many of my cousins from KwaZulu-Natal showed me, all it takes is an Autostyle credit account to make an economy car look like an aspiring racer. Do the efforts underneath match the aesthetics?
This is crucial. After all, the Etios was bred for the transportation needs of an emerging economy. Surely an extra dollop of power would make for an unsavoury result — especially in a pair of overzealous hands.
The RSi employs progressive-rate springs, 30mm shorter than standard. The rear axle was beefed up. Pretorius asserts that changing the front suspension geometry makes for more progressive handling.
And the anchors? “It was important to keep the standard pads and rear drums. These are wear items and our aim is to conform to the requirements of the standard service plan.”
However, the discs at the front are 40mm larger. To fit the standard calipers to larger discs, adapter brackets had to be made.
“We used aircraft-grade, lightweight aluminium. That demanded a bit of outlay, but the design work is done.”
Peripheral hardware upgrades include metal-braided brake hoses and the use of DOT 5.1 brake fluid.
“Then we added power, which made for an interesting conflict, since we sought to retain the standard internals — to ensure cost-effectiveness for production.”
The 1.5-litre, four-cylinder unit gained a low-pressure turbocharger (0.4 bar boost pressure); an intercooler and a free-flowing exhaust and intake system.
Claimed output is 110kW and 210Nm (the regular car does 66kW and 132Nm); while Pretorius claims a 0-100km/h sprint time of 8.1sec. The standard version would dispatch it in 11.3sec. Sounds impressive, but does it feel like a legitimate series model, or the conjuring of a crazed tuning enthusiast?
Interior upgrades include leather upholstery with fatter seat bolsters, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter.
An infotainment system and upgraded audio package is part of the mix. Of course, it is still an Etios, so hard, scratchy plastics abound.
I twist the key and the little Etios burbles into life, emitting a promising idling tone. Initially I am judicious on the accelerator. Then I hear the turbocharger spooling, followed by the distinctive sound of expelled pressure. I giggle like a schoolgirl.
Liberal with the power pedal, hitting the limiter in first and second, I thrash the little Etios and find that I can’t stifle my grin.
As each lap passes I grow more gung-ho: this thing relishes heavy-handedness. It understeered far less than expected. The underpinnings appear to comply faithfully under the duress of rough, rapid driving. Grip from the Bridgestone Potenza RE002 rubber (205/45R17W) was resolute.
And we can vouch for those larger brake discs and the recalibrated ABS system. Our racing driver on the day, Tasmin Pepper, managed to extract a lap time of 1:22.0. For perspective, a Toyota 86 Limited clocked 1:19.0 on the IgnitionLIVE GT LapZ leaderboard.
My sentiment: it feels cohesive rather than an aftermarket concoction.
Around town it is as well behaved as a standard Etios — although resisting the urge to time your shifts to give other drivers an earful of turbocharger whoosh is impossible. However, extra sound-deadening keeps it hushed at freeway speeds. A sixth gear would be welcome; the RSi still uses the standard Etios five-speed. The six-speed manual from the Toyota Yaris could be considered, should cost allow.
That brings us to the big question: price. Pretorius says the total cost would be R260 000, eyeing costlier junior warm hatchbacks like the Suzuki Swift Sport. He knows that such a project is optimistic, especially in these tumultuous times.
Feedback from Toyota dealerships and head office has been positive, claims Pretorius. The car has already garnered a significant amount of attention on social media. Whether it receives endorsement from the OEM (original equipment manufacturer), Pretorius claims he will be forging ahead, promising 40 launch-edition units in 2017.
Enthusiasts will agree that there is always a place for performance products that tickle the important parts of the petrolhead brain.
This is an impressive exercise, considering its humble foundation. Given the reputation of Toyota — and the reverence for the RSi — this has potential to weave snugly into our local motoring fabric. – Brenwin Naidu (Pics: Waldo Swiegers)